A tale of two cities: Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne

“Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei” explores modern and contemporary art, life and cultural politics.

In over 300 works and suite of new commissions, the National Gallery of Victoria presents two of the greatest artists from the 20th and 21st centuries.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Neolithic Pottery with Coca Cola Logo’, 2007, paint, Neolithic ceramic urn, 27.94 x 24.89 cm. Private collection. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Neolithic Pottery with Coca Cola Logo’, 2007, paint, Neolithic ceramic urn, 27.94 x 24.89 cm. Private collection. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

From 11 December to 24 April the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne brings together over 300 works from Andy Warhol and Ai Weiwei. “Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei”, developed in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Museum and with the participation of Ai Weiwei, explores the parallels and intersections between the two artists’ practices. Both artists have been extremely influential in the 20th and 21st centuries, and what is immediately evident in the exhibition are the common themes in each of their creative practice.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Forever Bicycles’, 2011, installation view at Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Forever Bicycles’, 2011, installation view at Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

For the exhibition, the NGV commissioned Ai Weiwei with new major works including two new installations one finds in the foyer of the gallery: one from the series Forever Bicycles (2011) and composed by almost 1,500 bicycles, the other a five-metre-tall work from the “Chandelier” series. Both works reflect a theme that can be seen throughout the exhibition – the use of everyday objects (such as the popular ‘Forever’ brand of bicycle mass-produced in China) to reflect our relationship to consumer culture.

The impressive installations are a perfect place for a selfie, and many visitors pose in front of the archway of bikes, appropriate for an exhibition featuring the man who coined the idea that everyone is searching for their 15 minutes of fame.

New York and Beijing

One of the elements that creates an intriguing dynamic in this exhibition is the exchange between the two cities of New York and Beijing. This also echoes a political shift with Warhol documenting popular American culture in the 20th century and Ai Weiwei looking at the rise of economic growth in China in the 21st century.

Christopher Makos, ‘Andy Warhol in Tiananmen Square’, 1982. © Christopher Makos 1982, makostudio.com.

Christopher Makos, ‘Andy Warhol in Tiananmen Square’, 1982. © Christopher Makos 1982, makostudio.com.

Andy Warhol and Ai both studied their own cities in great detail, recording time and place through videos and photos. They were both avid photographers and documenters, and this is given expression in the way their recorded their own cities of New York and Beijing. The exhibition shows Warhol’s Screen Tests (1962-1964), black-and-white films of artists, models and anonymous visitors to his studio alongside Ai’s videos documenting Beijing.

Both sets of moving image work would be a test of endurance for the viewer if they were to watch them all. For example, Ai’s “Circulation Road” series (2003-2005) show footage that the artist took while driving around in Beijing traffic. The works capture a chaotic city, alluding to the environmental concerns that the city is struggling with. Ai himself said that the driving involved in making the work was dull, but that he sees it as his role to document what is taking place in his city. All four works, played on the same screen, go for a total of 9,789 minutes (or more than six and a half days).

Meanwhile on the other side of the room, Warhol’s piece Empire (1964) shows the empire state building over an eight-hour period, shot in real time. The combination of the two cities creates a rich space of documentation that is both immersive and aesthetically engaging.

Ai Weiwei, ‘At the Museum of Modern Art’, 1987, from the ‘New York Photographs series’, 1983–93, silver gelatin photograph. Collection of Ai Weiwei. © Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, ‘At the Museum of Modern Art’, 1987, from the ‘New York Photographs series’, 1983–93, silver gelatin photograph. Collection of Ai Weiwei. © Ai Weiwei.

Warhol and Ai also have an engagement with each other’s cities, although in different time periods. In 1982 Warhol visited China and Ai lived in New York from 1981 to 1993. As the exhibition press release states:

Both artists have been equally critical in redefining the role of ‘the artist’ – as impresario, cultural producer, activist and brand – and both are known for their keen observation and documentation of contemporary society and everyday life.

Andy Warhol, ‘Mao’, 1972, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 208.3 x 154.9 cm. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Center for the Arts 1997.1.21. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.

Andy Warhol, ‘Mao’, 1972, acrylic and silkscreen ink on linen, 208.3 x 154.9 cm. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution Dia Center for the Arts 1997.1.21. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Mao (Facing Forward)’, 1986, oil on canvas, 233.6 x 193.0 cm. Private collection. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Mao (Facing Forward)’, 1986, oil on canvas, 233.6 x 193.0 cm. Private collection. Image courtesy Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei.

This overlap between the two cultures is shown throughout the exhibition as Warhol’s depictions of Mao are shown next to Ai’s later versions. But perhaps the most intriguing conversation between the two cultures can be seen in both artists’ approaches to mass consumption and the readymade. In the very first room of the exhibition are Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans sitting behind Ai’s Coloured Vases (2006), Neolithic vases from 5,000-3,000 BCE covered in industrial paint.

Both works critique the thoughtless consumption of goods, but where Warhol draws on modern references, Ai reaches back into the past traditions to question the contemporary manufacturing industry in China. These two approaches, placed next to each other in an exhibition space, evoke interesting allusions to both cultural contexts.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Coloured Vases’, 2006, Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) and industrial paint, dimensions variable. Ai Weiwei Studio © Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, ‘Coloured Vases’, 2006, Neolithic vases (5000-3000 BC) and industrial paint, dimensions variable. Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei.

Duchamp and the readymade

It is perhaps not surprising to find these two artists exhibited together, given that they are both heavily influenced by the work of the French artist Marcel Duchamp, the pioneer of conceptual art. Duchamp emphasised ideas over artisanal skill, an approach that led Warhol to challenge concepts of originality, authenticity and the commodity status of the art object. Ai experimented with Duchamp’s ideas in New York in the 1980s and revisited his work in Beijing in the 1990s, where he developed his approach through linguistic play, irony and institutional critique.

Andy Warhol, ‘You're In’ 1967, spray paint on glass bottles in printed wooden crate: Crate: 20.3 x 43.2 x 30.5 cm, Bottles (each): 20.3 x 5.7 cm, Diameter: 18.7 cm. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. 1998.1.789a-x © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. /ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.

Andy Warhol, ‘You’re In’, 1967, spray paint on glass bottles in printed wooden crate: Crate: 20.3 x 43.2 x 30.5 cm, Bottles (each): 20.3 x 5.7 cm, Diameter: 18.7 cm. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. 1998.1.789a-x © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. /ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.

Warhol and Ai continued to use easily recognisable objects from everyday culture in their work. In 1961 Warhol used the well recognised imagery of mass-produced Coca-Cola bottles, painting them and filling them with perfume he labeled You’re In’ / ‘Eau d’Andy. In response, the Coca-Cola Company responded with a cease and desist letter. Warhol often created these works in such a way as to question what is sacred and what people worship in modern society.

Andy Warhol, 'Campbell's Soup II: Tomato-Beef Noodle O's', 1969, screen print on paper, 88.9 x 58.4 cm. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.

Andy Warhol, ‘Campbell’s Soup II: Tomato-Beef Noodle O’s’, 1969, screen print on paper, 88.9 x 58.4 cm. The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; Founding Collection, Contribution The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS, New York. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney.

For this exhibition Ai wanted to create a work depicting faces and quotes from Australian activists made out of Lego. However, Lego didn’t approve the use of their toys for political works and refused the bulk order. Ai instead built the piece out of plastic blocks made in China. After the public backlash from this decision, in January 2016 Lego changed their stance and stated they would not refuse bulk orders in the future, just insisting that their company does not endorse the activity. Both these instances demonstrate that by using recognisable symbols, their work has the potential to influence perceptions.

The individual and the state

The relationship between individual freedom and state power is a theme that both Warhol and Ai explore in their work. Warhol explored different aspects of state power through studying the electric chair as a potent symbol in 1963, as well as representations of political assassinations, guns and knives, the hammer and sickle and most-wanted men in his Death and Disaster series. By working with these objects Warhol investigated the glamorisation of violence in American culture in the 20th century.

Andy Warhol, 'Electric Chair', 1967, synthetic polymer paint screenprinted onto canvas, 137.2 x 185.1 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1977 © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS. Licensed by Viscopy.

Andy Warhol, ‘Electric Chair’, 1967, synthetic polymer paint screenprinted onto canvas, 137.2 x 185.1 cm. National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. Purchased 1977 © The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./ARS. Licensed by Viscopy.

Ai also employs potent symbols in his critique on government control and censorship. One example was his piece 4851 that commemorated thousands of schoolchildren who died when an earthquake in Sichuan caused the collapse of improperly built school buildings. As a result of his critique Ai was imprisoned for 81 days and when he was released he had 15 days to pay GBP1 million of tax and his passport was confiscated. Ai responded through art. In 2011 Ai tweeted:

Since Nov.
30, 2013, every morning I am putting a bouquet of flowers in the basket of a bicycle outside the front door of the No. 258 Caochangdi studio until I win back the right to travel.

Ai Weiwei, ‘S.A.C.R.E.D.’ (detail), 2011–2013, 6 dioramas, fibreglass, iron, 377.0 x 197.0 x 148.4 cm (each). Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei.

Ai Weiwei, ‘S.A.C.R.E.D.’ (detail), 2011–2013, 6 dioramas, fibreglass, iron, 377.0 x 197.0 x 148.4 cm (each). Ai Weiwei Studio. © Ai Weiwei.

Ai documented this act every day and posted them on social media, which sparked an Internet movement called Flowers for Freedom. The artwork, called With Flowers, continued until 23 July 2015 when his passport was returned.

The NGV commissioned a piece that grew out of this protest. The installation Blossom (2015) is a bed of delicate white porcelain flowers that are spread out on the floor. Each flower was made by skilled craftspeople from Jingdezhen and draws upon traditions of Chinese porcelain production. The delicate petals produce a piece that is both aesthetically beautiful and powerful in its commitment to freedom of expression. As with many of Warhol and Ai’s works found in the exhibition, the ideas that drive the piece are the heart that makes the artwork so enticing.

Claire Wilson

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Related topics: art and politics, gallery shows, sculpture, installation, feature, pop art, Chinese artists, American artists, events in Melbourne

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